Serbs see Kosovo as their `Jerusalem'

 

When was the Kosovo problem created?

The Albanian nation - scattered throughout the southern part of the Balkans - started demanding independence early this century. The Great Powers in Europe (and chiefly Britain) wanted to maintain the unity of the Ottoman empire. They finally consented to an independent Albania, but sought to limit the frontiers of the state; many ethnic Albanians were left in the neighbouring states. Serbia occupied the territory of Kosovo in 1912, and incorporated it into Yugoslavia at the end of the first World War.

Why is Kosovo important for the Serbs?

The land of Kosovo is where the Serbian nation started its existence. Some of the holiest shrines of the Serb Orthodox Church are there. The Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in 1389, a battle which is still widely commemorated in Serbia. Despite demographic changes, most ordinary Serbs view Kosovo as their "Jerusalem", a place which should never be surrendered. During the second World War the province was annexed to Greater Albania (then an Italian colony), and the ethnic Serbs suffered terribly.

Was Kosovo ever a special political entity?

Yes. Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia's communist ruler, created a federal structure for Yugoslavia. Serbia was one of the republics, and Kosovo was granted the status of an autonomous region within Serbia, a legal condition it enjoyed well after Tito's death in 1980. The autonomy was eliminated in the late 1980s, when Slobodan Milosevic, the communist party leader, became President of Serbia.

What happened to Yugoslavia?

The federal state was effectively dismantled in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. This was followed less than a year later by the independence of Bosnia and Macedonia. Legally, Yugoslavia ceased to exist. In practice, the two remaining components of old Yugoslavia - Serbia and Montenegro - created a new country with the same name. The Albanians of Kosovo demanded independence, arguing that they should be allowed the same rights as all the other nations of the old state. President Milosevic refused, despite the fact that at the same time he himself was demanding the independence of ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia under the same principle which he denied for the Albanians.

How were the Kosovo Albanians organised?

As communist rule waned throughout Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Albanians established their own political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, ruled by Ibrahim Rugova, a moderate writer. Since 1991 he demanded independence. But he was willing to compromise on various constitutional schemes, all of which were rejected by the Serb authorities. Ultimately, the Albanians established their own underground state, complete with their own schools, hospitals and self-help groups. Rugova was eclipsed by more hard-line elements, who argued that only violence would persuade the Serbs to give up Kosovo. They obtained weapons from neighbouring Albania and, assisted with funds collected by the Albanian community in Europe and North America, the Kosovo Liberation Army was formed in 1997.

Were there previous opportunities to avert the current crisis?

Yes, plenty. When President Milosevic of Serbia abolished Kosovo's autonomous status in 1989, the Albanians rioted. They were crushed by the Yugoslav military, while Western governments did nothing. When Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991, every Western intelligence service predicted that Kosovo could become the most bloody battle. But Western governments were more concerned with dousing the flames of war in Croatia (1991-1993) and Bosnia (1992-1995). Milosevic was therefore left to crush the Kosovo Albanians unabated. In November 1995 a peace conference on Bosnia took place in Dayton, Ohio, under the auspices of the United States. An Albanian delegation came to the conference, demanding to be heard. It was shown the door, and the Western governments still refused to deal with the issue. When the Kosovo Liberation Army started its guerrilla warfare in 1998, the West began to pay attention to the province. But it dealt with the province's political leaders, people who were increasingly marginalised in their own community. In October last year NATO was days away from launching air strikes against President Milosevic. But the Americans negotiated a deal which allowed Milosevic to escape this threat, by introducing "observers" on the ground. Predictably, the observers did little to prevent Milosevic's murderous actions.

What is the problem with an independent Kosovo?

Ethnic Albanians also live in neighbouring Macedonia, where they amount to at least a quarter of the population. The fear is that an independent Kosovo would rekindle demands for the independence of the Albanians in Macedonia, and spark off a bigger war.

Is an independent Kosovo likely to unite with Albania?

Not necessarily. The Albanians are themselves divided into two major tribes and the Kosovo Albanians, despite their common language and Muslim religion, are different from their brethren in Albania proper. They experienced a different history, and a milder form of communism. They are also better educated, and tend to look down on their brethren from Albania.

Are NATO air strikes responsible for the current humanitarian disaster?

No. President Milosevic started expelling the Kosovo Albanians a year ago. In the two weeks before the NATO air strikes began, more than 25,000 Albanians were evicted. The air strikes have prompted Milosevic into speeding up a policy which he already decided upon.

Jonathan Eyal is director of studies at the RUSI in London

Analysis: page 16